Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad is the story of a woman named Marina, both early in her life and near the end. The narrative toggles back and forth between 1941, when Marina is a young woman working at The Hermitage in Leningrad, and the present, when she is an elderly American suffering from Alzheimer's.

The story set in 1941 covers the first months of the siege of Leningrad--at first, Marina is working to help pack the museum's art so it can be trucked to a safer location and seeing her friend--soon fiance--Dmitri, who is about to leave for the front. But the situation rapidly deteriorates, as the Germans cut off the city. As the bitterly cold winter progresses, the depravations are shocking. For protection from the bombs, Marina, her aunt, and uncle move into the basement of the Hermitage with hundreds of others. They survive on a few scraps of bread a day, also eating wood, glue, and whatever else they can find that might have some nutritive value. Her aunt and uncle succumb, but Marina survives. An elderly woman who works in the museum helps Marina retain her sanity by teaching her how to build a memory palace--a method for remembering the details of all the artworks now missing from the hermitage's walls.

Those memories are more real to the elderly Marina than her granddaughter's wedding, the setting for the contemporary sections of the book. Much of the time, she does not recognize her daughter and she cannot remember where she is. Faithful Dmitri is still with her, protecting her and hiding her condition from her son and daughter. When she goes missing in the middle of the night, however, the children understand the full extent of her illness.

Both pieces of the book are interesting/informative--shedding light on a historic event I knew little about, providing a glimpse into what it might be like to have Alzheimer's, and provoking reflection on art's power. But the two pieces really don't seem to fit together, there are a lot of loose ends that never get resolved, and the characters other than Marina are not well-realized. So I liked the book--but it could have been so much more.

And BTW, the mystery binge continues: I also read Silent Mercy by Linda Fairstein while reading Madonnas. However, I have nothing to say about it.

Favorite passages:
In the half-light, their eyes meet. What he finds there is her, but also not her. Her eyes are like the bright surface of shallow water, reflecting back his own gaze. Something flutters and darts under the surface, but it might be his own desire, his own memory. He is, he realizes, probably alone.

No one weeps anymore, or if they do, it is over small things, inconsequential moments that catch them unprepared. What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death: death is ordinary. What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world.

The slow erosion of self has its compensations. having forgotten whatever associations might dull her vision, she can look at a leaf and see it as if for the first time. Though reason suggests otherwise, she has never seen the green before. It is wondrous. Each day, the world is made fresh again, holy, and she takes it in, in all its raw intensity, like a young child. She feels something bloom in her chest--joy or grief, eventually they are inseparable. The world is so acutely beautiful, for all its horrors, that she will be sorry to leave it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Fatal Error, by J.A. Jance

Okay, so the mystery binge didn't quite end. Instead, I read the latest installment in J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds series (one of four series that Jance has going--and not my favorite). Ali is a former TV anchor who returned to her hometown of Sedona, Arizona, after being fired from her job. After a series of traumas and some good luck (she keeps inheriting things, a nice trick if you can manage it), she has settled into a relationship with B. Simpson, the head of a computer security firm populated by some top-notch hackers, and is at the police academy, training so she can become the PR officer for the local sheriff's department. Unfortunately, she is laid off the day she returns from the academy.

Unemployment doesn't suit her, and she eventually is drawn into a case involving a former colleague in the news business, Brenda Riley. Brenda, too, was fired, but she hasn't fared so well post-stardom; she has been dumped by her online boyfriend and problems with alcohol have led to a series of arrests. When she discovers the erstwhile boyfriend is not who he says he is, she finds a new purpose and a lot of trouble, trouble she eventually draws Ali into.

The story is fast-paced and switches perspectives often enough to keep you interested--even though the case itself and the fact that Ali is able to crack it (mostly because of those hackers I mentioned) both seem utterly unbelievable. Jance also seems to repeat some elements of the back story of various characters unnecessarily. I don't know whether she forgot what she'd already told us (shouldn't her editor catch that?) or she thinks her readers aren't too bright and can't keep up (which would be pretty annoying)--but either way, I wish she'd cleaned that up.

Fatal Error isn't a great mystery, but it's not a terrible one either and it's a fast read, so . . . it's sideways thumb on this one.

Favorite passage: None

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Breaking Silence, by Linda Castillo

Book two in my mystery binge was a step up from Crunch Time, perhaps because it is only the third book in Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder series. The small-town sheriff and her boyfriend--John Tomasetti of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation--are relatively fresh characters, as is the setting, a small town in Amish country.

Kate, who was raised in an Amish family, is working two cases that are bringing back a host of troubling memories. One is an escalating series of hate crimes directed against the Amish. The other is what at first appears to be an accident--a couple and the husband's brother dead in the manure pit of their pig farm (described in nearly nauseating detail)--but is later revealed to be triple murder that leaves four children orphans. John comes to town to help with the investigation of the hate crimes. The stress of the two cases, her memories, persistent insomnia, and her shooting of a suspect escalate Kate's drinking. With John's help (readers of the earlier books in the series know he has his own demons to deal with), she manages to hold things together and solve both cases, but a total meltdown seems sure to ensue in a later title.

It's odd to me that the Amish are currently such a popular topic in reading material. I don't find the group inherently fascinating, but the situation of a woman who was formerly Amish serving as the sheriff in the "English" community near where her family lived is rife with dramatic possibilities, which Castillo exploits. I'm still looking forward to another Kate Burkholder mystery (and, lately, that's saying something).

But now, the binge goes on hold while I read The Madonnas of Leningrad, Novel Conversation's next book.

Favorite passage:
The rain started at midnight. The wind began short time later, yanking the last of the leaves from the maple and sycamore trees and sending them skittering along Main Street . . . (unfortunately, she takes the sentence in a bad direction with the last phrase: like dry, frightened crustaceans).

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Crunch Time, by Diane Mott Davidson

I was feeling so ready for a mystery binge--but I started with a bad one. Diane Mott Davidson's series featuring sleuthing caterer Goldy Schulz has totally jumped the shark. Not only is Crunch Time silly and unbelievable--it's boring!! But maybe some of the recipes are good!

Friday, July 22, 2011

The First Husband, by Laura Dave

I guess I should have known from the title and the fact that Amazon offered The First Husband in a package with a Jennifer Weiner that this book would be a quintessential "chick lit" story, but somehow I allowed a brief synopsis to convince me it might be more. It's not. I also thought that the main character's career as a travel writer might be interesting to learn more about. It wasn't. Don't bother!

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett returns to South America in State of Wonder and, while not as compelling as her masterpiece, Bel Canto, it is well worth reading. The book's central character is Dr. Marina Singh, a 43-year-old pharmacologist for a company in the Twin Cities; she is having an affair with her boss, Mr. Fox, a man who is little more than a cipher. Much more real is Dr. Annick Swenson, Singh's mentor when she was training to be an ob-gyn (she quit medicine when she accidentally blinded a baby during a caesarean). Swenson is now in the Amazon jungle, using funding from Singh's company to research why women of the Lakashi tribe remain fertile into their 70s. Swenson is not keeping the company up-to-date on her progress--they don't even know exactly where she is--and Marina's lab mate, Dr. Anders Eckman, has gone to South America to find her.

When a letter arrives from Swenson, reporting Dr. Eckman's death, both his widow and Mr. Fox want Marina to go to Manaus to find out what happened and ascertain the status of Swenson's research. Marina does not want to go, but she succumbs to the pressure and heads out on her journey. She spends several weeks in Manaus--sans luggage--trying to make contact with the young couple who are the gatekeepers to Dr. Swenson and wandering through the city, reflecting on her earlier life. While Marina's back story is interesting, she still somehow fails to come completely alive as a character, and the section of the book set in Manaus drags.

Dr. Swenson finally makes her appearance, however, and Swenson agrees to take Marina to her research station. From here, the pace of the story picks up, with a number of intriguing developments. Marina learns new and startling information about Swenson's research, is forced into providing medical services to the Lakashi (and into reexamining why one bad outcome caused her to leave the practice of medicine), and tries to find out exactly what happened to Anders. The ending is both startling and somewhat unsatisfying, as I still felt unsure about what path Marina will follow when she returns to Minnesota.

Favorite passages:
At that moment, she understood why people say You might want to sit down. There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.

Marina filled her lungs with frozen air and smelled both winter and spring, dirt and leftover snow with the smallest undercurrent of something green. . . . Instead of growing up inquisitive and restless, she had developed a profound desire to stay, as if her center of gravity was so low it connected her directly to this particular patch of earth.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Room, by Emma Donoghue

By a strange coincidence, Novel Conversations will be discussing Room the night after the heavily promoted Diane Sawyer interview with Jaycee Dugard airs. Room tells a story that seems to have a number of similarities with the real-life Dugard story, but it is told from the story of five-year-old Jack, who lives in a 11 x 11 room with his "Ma." In fact, Jack was born in the room, the product of his mother's repeated rapes by their captor, whom they call "Old Nick."

Jack is happy in Room (he names most objects, not using's "Plant" not "the plant"). His mother has created a life that, though severely restricted by their circumstances, is rich with love. They share music and stories, have "Phys Ed" for exercise, play games, and create crafts from the meager supplies available (they blow out eggs and use the shells to create a snake that Jack stores under Bed). They have a television, but Ma limits Jack's viewing time. To Jack every channel is a different planet, and only what happens inside Room is real.

While Jack is happy, Ma is not doing so well. Some days she is "Gone"--sleeping and unresponsive. Her teeth cause her constant pain. And Old Nick is still raping her several nights a week. After Jack's fifth birthday, Ma begins to "unlie"--to begin helping construct a more accurate view of the world outside Room. She also hatches an extremely dangerous escape plan. It is, I suppose, a "spoiler" to say the plan succeeds--but I'm not sure anyone would want to read the book if Jack and Ma never got out of Room. Indeed, their experiences trying to understand and cope with "Outer Space" and reintegrate with Ma's family are by far the most interesting and thought-provoking parts of the book. The post-Room period also offers Donoghue a chance to satirize the media, who go crazy when the story of Jack and Ma's escape becomes public.

The author has done a marvelous job getting into the mind of five-year-old Jack (or at least it seems like she has--what do I know about the mind of a five-year-old?), and I admire the skill and humor with which she has drawn her unusual narrator. On the other hand, I think I would have enjoyed the book more if we had gotten the story from both Jack and Ma's perspectives. Although I think the device of multiple narrators is over-used, this might be a case in which it would have worked. Nonetheless, Room is worth reading, both to experience Jack's mind and to think about the philosophical questions it poses.

Favorite passage:
When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I'm five I know everything.